Constantly Risking Absurdity
Sunday, March 27, 2005
St. Therese and the Bohemians

An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed in my reading is that of the hip, young, radical writer encountering the meek St. Therese of Lisieux. I guess it’s fair to say that I don’t have enough evidence to claim that this phenomenon constitutes a universal pattern, but it’s happened more than once, maybe three times. It usually goes like this: a young writer says, "What could this little bourgeois girl possibly know about God and the plight of the modern believer?" Then the young writer reads her work and is a bit astonished to find out the answer: Quite a lot.

First case, Thomas Merton. In The Seven Storey Mountain, he writes that he could easily fathom saints coming out of Harlem, or leper colonies, or the slums of Turin, or the roads of Umbria in the times of St. Francis, or the Cistercian abbeys of the twelfth century, but definitely not "in the midst of all the stuffy, overplush, overdecorated, comfortable ugliness and mediocrity of the bourgeoisie." He continues:

Therese…was a Carmelite, that is true: but what she took into the convent with her was a nature that had been formed and adapted to the background and mentality of the French middle class of the late nineteenth century, than which nothing could be imagined more complacent and apparently immovable. The one thing that seemed to me more or less impossible was for grace to penetrate the thick, resilient hide of bourgeois smugness and really take hold of the immortal soul beneath that surface, in order to make something out of it. At best, I thought, such people might turn out to be harmless prigs: but great sanctity? Never!

But Merton soon changed his mind:

She became a saint, not by running away from the middle class, not by abjuring and despising and cursing the middle class… She kept everything that was bourgeois about her and was still not incompatible with her vocation… To her, it would have been incomprehensible that anyone should think these things were ugly or strange, and it never even occurred to her that she might be expected to give them up, or hate them, or curse them, or bury them under a pile of anathemas…

Merton said that his early reproach against Therese was on of the "biggest and most salutary humiliations" that he had ever had; even so, it still did not change his opinion of "the smugness of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie: God forbid!"

A similar thing happened to Tony Hendra, who wrote the recent bestseller, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. As a teenager, Hendra was given a long list of spiritual writers to peruse as a preliminary step towards entering a monastery:

One recommendation on which, surprisingly, both my mentors agreed was the Discalced Carmelite nun St. Teresa (Therese) of Lisieux… St. Therese of Lisieux died in 1897 when she was only twenty-four after a harrowing round of physical and spiritual travails. Respectful though Catholic kids were taught to be about the saints—especially modern ones, with their relevant messages for our sinful young lives—the Little Flower was a figure of fun, because her following while enormous, tended to be female, long in the tooth, and gag-me sentimental. Her statue was always the soppiest in the church, goody-goody eyes rolled up to Heaven, chipped plaster roses held to chaste bosom. I’d always dismissed her and her wildly popular autobiography, Histoire d’une ame (The Story of a Soul) as the worst kind of Victorian nun-slush.

He continues:

There was a lot of three-hanky Victorian piety in The Story of a Soul, but to my surprise I also found a very tough-spirited young woman. I found her single-mindedness about entering Carmel inspiringly familiar. Even more familiar: the "curtain of darkness" she endured and the manifold doubts which constantly plagued her.

And then there is Michael Novak. As a young seminarian itching for a new ecumenical council, Novak spent a lot of time with the French:

I can hardly give enough credit to the Holy Cross seminaries for what they taught me between 1947 and 1959 about caritas, the drive to understand, and an incarnational humanism. There my soul became in a sense a child of France. I learned to love the Jacques Maritain of Integral Humanism, François Mauriac, and Albert Camus. From the French I learned the desire to write both philosophy and fiction. I also began an intense study of the life and work of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

About St. Therese:

St. Thérèse…is the teacher of the Church about the everyday exercise of caritas, in ways so humble that they mostly cannot be seen, even though their effects may be subjected to the tests of the gospel. She taught me the importance of thinking small and honoring the humble things that I at first tended to despise. For the theology of the laity and the theology of work and the theology of daily institutional life, her work has been described—by no less an authority than Hans Urs von Balthasar—as revolutionary.

The influence of Thérèse is most often visible in my work when I refer to the transformation that St. Thomas Aquinas wrought in Aristotle’s philosophy of human action. Aristotle organized his thought around the conception of phronesis or practical wisdom; Aquinas saw the potential in this concept to support a new mode of caritas. This transformation shapes the horizon within which I placed the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, on whom I had intended to do my doctoral thesis at Harvard. (I wrote and published Belief and Unbelief instead, to clear away a conceptual obstacle to understanding the theology of the person and community, by way of "intelligent subjectivity.") (Michael Novak,
"Controversial Engagements," First Things, April 1999.)

All of this has made me think twice about condemning all of these sappy evangelical youth groups that one encounters these days, and that are easy prey to vicious satires like the movie Saved!. Reality is more complex than we think, and we can be too quick to make judgments about the terrible bourgeoisie. However, I am still resolved never to read Tuesdays with Morrie--in part because I highly doubt that it's as good a book as Story of a Soul. But I guess I can't say that until I've read it.


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The intimations of a mild-mannered Paraguayan undergraduate, studying Eng. Lit. and philosophy in a small, midwestern Jesuit college.

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